Two Victorian Bridges -

a comparison of style and fashion in the late 19th century

Essay index
Most people have seen images of Tower Bridge, an iconic structure that crosses the River Thames and has come to represent the city of London. However, most fail to realise when they see the bridge that it is only a little over a century old. Its Gothic outer structure belies the fact that it was thoroughly modern and innovative - an engineering miracle of its time  - when it opened in 1894. But four years earlier another icon, an altogether more modern looking bridge, had opened to carry the railway across the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh. Few people would guess that the two structures were almost the same age - so why are they so different?

tower bridge
Forth bridge
Tower Bridge was designed by Horace Jones (1819-1887) who was London Corporation's architect. A bridge was needed across the Thames because of increasing business and traffic in the East End but it had to be able to allow shipping to pass through into the Port of London docks to the West. The Corporation asked for designs in 1876 and more than 50 were submitted, including a plan for a tunnel, but the only serious contenders were Jones and engineer Joseph Bazalgette.

Bazalgette was already well known for having constructed London's new sewers and curing the city of the Great Stink. He submitted three designs, all of which were modern-looking.  But Jones, as the city's own architect, had the upper hand and it was his old-styledesign that won the day - perhaps because he was in the ideal position of being both judge and entrant in the contest. In 1885 he was given the go-ahead to build his bridge and consultation with engineers resulted in the well-known structure that stands by the Tower of London today.

It was possibly the bridge's surroundings that eventually made the Gothic design the winner. Bazalgette's modern, highly-engineered structures would have stood in stark contrast to the ancient tower and looked out of place in the city. This was also less than a decade after Victoria's Golden Jubilee, the height of the great Gothic revival in art. The Arts and Crafts Movement had just been launched, in defiance of modern factory production methods and celebrating all that was good about traditional skills. Other public buildings were being constructed in the same style all over the country: Liverpool University's red-brick Victoria Building, Birmingham's Council House, the Natural History Museum in London,

But the Gothic brick coat hides an engineering masterpiece because the bridge is perfectly balanced to allow the two halves, or bascules, to lift and allow ships to pass. Beneath the two  abutments are huge chambers that take the counter-weights and the whole thing was driven by a massive hydraulic system. A very modern structure in a very traditional coat.

2004 pound coinThe Forth Bridge, on the other hand, had no ancient buildings surrounding it and therefore its design could be as modern as the engineers wanted. It, however, faced a different challenge. It was a railway bridge and built as part of the huge railway expansion that took place in the second half of the 19th century. Railways were modern, they replaced the old transport methods of carts and canals and were seen as part of a great new age as Britain ruled the world  and railway bridges were symbols of the golden dawn. But by the 1880s the railways were facing a lag in public support following a number of spectacular failures and disasters.

Thomas Bouch was originally asked to design a bridge to cross the Forth and link to his Tay Bridge further north. But in 1879 the Tay Bridge collapsed in a storm, killing 75 train passengers and crew. Bouch's design careeer was over and it was up to replacement engineers to produce plans that would reassure the public and restore confidence in the new transport system. The Tay Bridge had been a suspension bridge so the new designers, Benjamin Baker and Sir John Fowler, came up with a unique cantilever scheme supported on massive piers. The spider web appearance of the superstructure was unlike anything that had been seen before - a truly modern design for modern transport.